Leadership: June 11, 2001

Archives

: Soldiers have always been leading users of mathematical tools. In ancient times, larger armies were only possible if commanders could carefully calculate the math of supply, movement and arraying troops on the battlefield. Good math and accurate computation often made the difference between victory and defeat. The introduction of artillery, radio and aircraft greatly increased the math load. As scientists developed new forms of math in the past century, soldiers were quick to apply it to the battlefield. The soldiers had an excellent incentive to do so, for success in their business was a matter of life and death. In the last century, there have been enormous increases in the power of mathematical tools. Before World War II, Operations Research harnessed a wide array of mathematical tools for military purposes (a side effect of this was the development of "management science," which is what you teach students to turn them into MBAs.) The last few decades have brought about the possibility of using more powerful predictive tools to assist (by predicting the outcome of) combat. This is not a new idea. Napoleon (a mathematician by training) used such techniques. Prediction was implicit in the pioneering work the Germans did with wargames 150 years ago. But forecasting combat outcomes has always had about the same respect as weather forecasting. Close, but not something you'd want to trust your life to. That has been changing. Weather forecasts have grown much more accurate of late. The average person may not have noticed it, but farmers and businesses have. Accurate weather forecasts are now a big business, and the most lucrative customers are business, not the Weather Channel. The military is beginning to use the more effective predictive tools, things like complexity science and chaos theory, to predict which tactics, weapons and leadership styles will be most effective when the shooting starts. Just as Operations Research (which all this stuff actually belongs to) earned respect for its successes during World War II, the new tools have to wait for some battles to win before congratulations are passed around. But the new techniques will work, and they will work best for the side that uses them most efficiently and energetically.